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“Intimate and detailed . . . [Alan Pell Crawford] had access to thousands of family letters–some previously unexamined by historians–that he used to create his portrait of the complex idealist, [and] there are some surprising tidbits to be found.” –Associated Press
“[A] well-researched look at Jefferson, and even readers with only a passing interest in our third president should find it fascinating.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Insightful analysis and lucid prose make this autumnal portrait a rewarding experience.” –Kirkus Reviews
I found this recent study to nicely complement the standard book on this topic, Dumas Malone's concluding volume to his magisterial "Jefferson and his Time" series, "The Sage of Monticello" (1981). The book benefits from intervening research on TJ, including perhaps some additional documentary sources. The author has held a residential fellowship at one of the leading resources for Jeffersonian research, the International Center for Jefferson Studies situated near Monticello. However, the tone of the two books is somewhat different. Malone's title foretells the Sage returning home in retirement, to his books, family and farms, while he shapes the creation of the University of Virginia and continues to disseminate political wisdom. By contrast, Crawford's title , "Twilight at Monticello," suggests a less happy period for the retired President. The cover has a picture of Monticello in decay, somewhat after TJ's death. And many of the chapters are devoted to unfortunate and unpleasant events that afflicted TJ during his retirement. While the author's research is impressive, as reflected in 40 pages of helpful notes, he manages to cover the topic in 300 or so pages, as compared with Malone's exhaustive 537-page treatment. The author also brings to bear a more critical tone in assessing Jefferson during this period than Malone, who was (in addition to being a fine historian) distinctively a founding member of the Jefferson Establishment, centered at UVA, which undertook as much veneration of TJ as critical analysis of the third President. Jefferson is truly a complex and maddingly inconsistent figure; that is why solid studies such as this are so interesting to read. The author is to be commended for packing a lot of information into a relatively compact treatment--and Malone always awaits those who want to study the topic in greater detail.
Author Alan Pell Crawford paints a rather grim portrait of the post-presidential years of the life of Thomas Jefferson. This is not an expose or a hatchet job on the founding father, though. One learns that - like all humans - Jefferson had his flaws and his own personal and family struggles.
Family strife abounded in the Jefferson household. In addition, Jefferson was not an astute money manager of his personal finances. His indebtedness weighed and preyed upon him heavier and heavier as his longevity extended. Monticello was a rather high-maintenance and uncomfortable place to live.
Interestingly, Crawford does seem to weigh in on the side of those historians who think that Jefferson had a black mistress in the form of Sally Hemmings.
Again, though, this is not a scandalous book or an attempt to show that Jefferson had feet of clay. For those who seek a glimpse of Jefferson the man, it will perhaps be comforting to know that he was human just like all of us and struggled with many of life's common challenges and temptations.
I can't tell you how somehow comforted I am that there are others out there who "got it"! Alan Pell Crawford has written a remarkable book. It's been a while since I found a book so intriguing that I could not put it down! Jefferson was a complicated man -- and here in the 21st century, it's almost impossible to REALLY understand the thought processes, the logic, the "why?" of someone who lived under very different circumstances. We are products of our time. And so was Jefferson. The beauty of Crawford's work is that he bridges that chasm -- as best as anyone can -- to explain HOW, for example, an ex-president (and creator of the Declaration of Independence!) could end up in such financial dire straits. How the times and political climate played a role. How family squabbles and obligations add to financial strain (some things never change!). And yes, how it was very possible that Jefferson could have fathered the children of a slave. (I commend Crawford for not dipping into the "sensational" or treating the topic as some kind of an "exposé." He dealt with facts and probabilities - his explanation as to how the architecture of Monticello could've been conducive to "nocturnal visits" was beautifully researched, and yes, believable.) So many historical biographies are frankly dull. Laden with facts, but missing that spark of life that makes a book breathable. Twilight at Monticello is a wonderful read - and very, very thought-provoking.
Thomas Jefferson certainly lived a full life as one of our founding fathers, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and founder of the University of Virginia. He was very meticulous in the care his slaves gave to both Monticello the building and the grounds on which it stood. Jefferson's feelings regarding slavery are a mixed bag. He "trembled for our country" when he realized that God was just, and although he may not have physically mistreated his slaves himself he had others do the whipping. He loved his books, many of which were burned in Washington, D.C. when the British attacked the city in 1812. The fact that education was very important to him is demonstrated when grandson Jeff Randolph had his portrait painted by Rembrandt Peale. Jefferson had the portrait hung in the second tier below those of Adams, Franklin, and Lafayette. "Had you been educated," Jefferson told his grandson, "you would have been entitled to a place in the first--you'll always occupy the second." This was a period in time when women often died early after child-bearing, and men then moved on to marry someone else. Jefferson had many descendants, and alcohol and family squabbles often played a prominent part. Poor health often plagued him in his declining years such as bouts with boils on his buttocks, diarrhea, and constipation. Monticello fell into decline with Jefferson's death, and the mansion and grounds (except the cemetery grounds), slaves, and other household mementos were sold to a Charlottesville resident. Several of his remaining books were placed in the University of Virginia. As most everyone knows both Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after our country's declaring its independence from England.Read more ›